The Group

This 1963 novel by Mary McCarthy follows the lives of eight 1933 graduates of Vassar, as they pursue careers, relationships, and freedom to live their lives as they choose. Some of their experiences are pretty harrowing — one woman is involuntarily committed and another is nearly raped. And some have run-of-the-mill obstacles. One finds that she isn’t as good at her chosen career as she’d hoped, another falls for a married man who made it clear from the start he’s only after sex, and another struggles to live up to others’ expectations of her as a mother.

One of the best things about the book is that it shows how different kinds of trouble still feel like trouble to the person experiencing them. I felt awful for Libby when she couldn’t seem to figure out how to critique manuscripts to her employers’ satisfaction, even though her suffering pales in comparison to what her friend Kay went through as her marriage fell apart. McCarthy puts you right there with the characters in the moment, and what they feel feels altogether real and significant.

I also appreciated the variety of lives she depicts, even within this fairly privileged slice of 1930s womanhood. I think the novel’s scope is a reason the book has been so popular since its publication. There’s no sense that there’s a single way to be a woman, even at a time when gender roles were more constrained than they are now. They are so much more constrained! What these women were up against, despite their relative wealth and education, was tremendous. But a lot of what these women grapple with hasn’t gone away. Woman of all classes still have to deal with others’ expectations, the limitations of their own abilities, the unreliability of others, and the challenges of finding the money and time to accomplish everything you want to. Today, we are better off in so many ways, but there’s plenty here that’s familiar.

Still, the group’s privileged position keeps this from being a full account of 20th-century womanhood. Not all of these women are wealthy, but most do not have to struggle with money very much. And many of them come across as snobby, classist, and casually racist. Even there, though, it was interesting to see how their political convictions sometimes rubbed up against their attitudes about actual people from different circumstances than theirs. It seemed authentic to the time and easily transferrable to today.

And on top of all this, it’s just an absorbing read. I cared what happened to these women, even the ones who exasperated me. I hated that it was so difficult for them to get on their path and wanted all of them to figure things out and find a way through.

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Morality Play

In the end it was destitution that won the day for him. That and the habit of mind of players, who think of their parts and how best to do them, and listen to the words of the master-player, but do not often think of the meaning as a whole. Had these done so, they would have seen what I, more accustomed to conclusions, saw and trembled at: if we make our own meaning, God will oblige us to answer our own question, He will leave us in the void without the comfort of his word.

Nicholas, the narrator of Morality Play by Barry Unsworth, is a 14th-century priest who has left his vocation and ended up with a band of travelling players. Knowing that he needs companions to get through the winter, he reluctantly joins in as a performer, taking the place of a recently deceased player.

The troupe ends up in a village that is still reeling from the recent murder of a child named Thomas Wells. The troupe then decides to do something daring  — they will depart from the usual fare of biblical stories and tell the story of Thomas’s death as a medieval morality play.

The most interesting thing about this book is how it shows the telling of a story shaping the facts around the story. As the players attempt to dramatize the murder, they find aspects of the village’s story that don’t make sense and potentially indicate that the woman they’ve identified as the killer isn’t actually guilty. As they perform, townspeople weigh in with their own observations, which end up shaping both future performances and the effort to find the real killer.

What was less interesting, and kept the book from being a top-tier read for me, was the bland characterization of the players and townspeople. I didn’t know enough about any of them to care much, and their limited emotional development was passed over so swiftly that I sometimes didn’t recognize what was happening when it happened.

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The Infinite Blacktop

There are three cases in Sarah Gran’s third Claire Dewitt novel, each taking place at a different point in Claire’s life, but the mystery is really about Claire herself and how she is supposed to carry on in the face of suffering and grief.

The Case of the Infinite Blacktop, set in 2011, involves a recent attempt on Claire’s life as she was trying to learn more about the publisher of the Cynthia Silverton mysteries that she and her fellow girl detectives loved when they were teenagers. The Clue of the Charnel House, set in 1985, returns to Claire’s teen years, as she and her friends Tracy and Kelly solve crimes together, before Tracy disappears. And The Mystery of the CBSIS is set in 1999, when Claire had to solve a cold case involving a pair of artists in order to receive her California PI license.

So far, I’ve liked each of the books in this better than this last, which means this is my favorite. Claire herself still depends on drugs and alcohol too much, but the book centers less on that and more on the fact that she’s trying to avoid really looking at her life. And the thematic interconnctedness of the cases in these books force Claire to come to grips with some possibilities she was trying to avoid, one of those being the possibility of moving on.

A highlight of the book is a lengthy excerpt of a Cynthia Silverton mystery. The style is a sort of gee-whiz isn’t this cool mystery for kids, but the things happening within it are very adult, which makes it absolutely hilarious and very much in keeping with its bizarre existence and Claire and her friends’ fascination with it.

This book is more contemplative than the previous books, and there were a lot of passages about the nature of identity or morality or grief that I liked. This one takes place in a prayer group that Claire visits to talk to a potential source. A group member is talking about the difficulty of knowing how to be good:

“The older I get, the less I understand. I don’t know what it would mean to be really good. I think sometimes we get caught up in trying to tell the world something about ourselves. Maybe even trying to tell ourselves about ourselves, you know, trying to keep up an idea of ourselves that we can live with. But I think something we need to stop worrying about all that and just do something. Just look for ways to help and then just try to help. Water a plant. Feed an animal. Help the people you see every day. We don’t have to make some big controversy over it, or get wrapped up in some drama. We make things so complicated. All we have to do is just be a little bit better than we are, and keep heading that way. It doesn’t have to feel good. You don’t have to like it. And you can have your doubts about it, too. You just have to do it.

I think, by the end of this book, Claire has turned a corner, putting away her identity as the world’s greatest detective and just letting herself do the next right thing. She’s gotten some possible answers about her past, maybe enough answers, and she’s content in a way she hasn’t been in the series so far. Although I think Sara Gran is planning to write more Claire DeWitt books (and I’ll probably read them), this actually feels like it could be a conclusion to the series, with Claire traveling the highway at peace with herself.

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Miss Hargreaves

This odd little book from 1940, a favorite of my blogging friend Simon, is the story of a man who finds himself in over his head after telling what seems to be a harmless lie that somehow becomes true. When Norman is on holiday in Ireland with his friend Henry, they make up stories about an elderly woman named Miss Hargreaves. After coming up with her in a conversation with the sexton at the church they’re visiting, they start piling on more an more details about her eccentricities, including a cockatoo named Mr. Pepusch and a bath that she takes  with her everywhere. They even go so far as to write “Miss Hargreaves” a note inviting her to visit Norman at his home in the town of Cornford.

It’s something of a surprise to them both when she turns up. And her appearance leaves Norman absolutely bewildered. How did this happen? And how can he cope with this bizarre creature? Miss Hargreaves is herself an absurd creation. She barges into forbidden spaces in the church, insisting that Norman play the organ more loudly and using more pipes than he’s supposed to. She insists that the staff where she is lodging remove decorations she finds unattractive and move beds around so her dog, Sarah, can sleep more comfortably. And all the while she insists that she “abominates fuss.” This would all be difficult enough if Norman weren’t so flummoxed about her actual existence!

At the same time, there’s something likable about Miss Hargreaves and her way of just barging through the world, doing things her way. And Norman finds himself feeling conflicted about her presence more than once. He wants her gone, yet he frets about her. He turns his back on her, but he can’t leave her alone, even after (because of another of Norman’s confabulations) she decides she wants nothing to do with him. He doesn’t handle her presence well and is sometimes outright cruel, but I read this as rising out of his confusion — and the fact that Miss Hargreaves really is a lot.

Part of the book’s charm is that it doesn’t make any attempt to explain what has happened. Norman’s dad refers a few times to his own experiences having things he thought up appear in reality, so there’s a hint there. But Norman’s dad exists in his own mental space and isn’t the most reliable of narrators. There’s some suggestion that the ghastly church in Ireland made it happen, but why and how isn’t clear. And Miss Hargreaves herself doesn’t seem to understand her existence. She just is. 

The book’s conclusion is odd in that it both sets things right and doesn’t. It feels like things turn out the way they’re supposed to but also badly. I suspect different readers will respond very differently to it, depending on how they respond to Miss Hargreaves’ existence. I liked the ambiguity of it. I think the absurdity of the story demands a messy conclusion.

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The Final Revival of Opal and Nev

The fictional rock duo Opal and Nev became notorious in the 1970s after a riot broke out at one of their concerts and Opal was photographed in a posture of defiance while Nev carried her on his back away from the scene. Their partnership had always been sort of odd. Nev was a white guy from England who wrote quirky semi-folky rock. And Opal was a skinny Black woman from Detroit whose musical stylings were closer to performance art than any kind of traditional Motown sound. But something about them struck a chord with a lot of people, especially after the photograph.

This book by Dawnie Walton is written as an oral history of the fictional duo, assembled by the rock journalist Sunny Curtis in 2017, when rumors are swirling about a possible reunion of the duo. Sunny has a personal connection to the story, as her late father was their drummer in the early part of their career and had an affair with Opal. Although this connection might make her exactly the wrong person to tell Opal and Nev’s story, it gives her the personal passion to get it off the ground, when the pair are little more than a musical footnote.

I like the oral history format, and I liked this. It’s fun to see how the different participants build on and complement each other, and Sunny’s own personal stake in the drama and her reactions to the revelations along the way add pleasing layers to the narrative. There’s plenty of complexity here, as the story addresses race, politics, family, sex, addiction, art … all the things you’d expect to find in a story with this premise. I especially liked the tension between Sunny’s expectations of who these people are and who they turned out to be.

That tension was especially evident in Sunny’s perception of Opal, who had become a sort of pop-culture revolutionary icon in the years since her career slowed down. And she is a revolutionary, no doubt about it. But she’s also not exactly who Sunny expects her to be. At the same time, Opal herself is continuing to grow, perhaps in response to other people’s reaction to her. I think that angle of the book — how people respond to people’s perceptions of them — is the most interesting part of the book. It takes in people’s personal lives, their artistic lives, and their political lives.

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Stranger Things Happen

A few years ago, I read Kelly Link’s short story collection Get in Trouble. Despite generally liking short stories best when they’re kind of weird, I thought that collection was a little too weird. I can’t remember the details of those stories well enough now to compare them to the stories in her first collection, Stranger Things Happen. But I can say that I enjoyed this collection more. Maybe the stories are just a little less strange (and they’re very strange), or maybe I’ve changed enough as a reader or was just in the right mood to be able to just sit in the weirdness of these stories.

Some of the stories involve hauntings. The first story, “Carnation Lily, Lily, Rose,” is a series of a man just past death, trying to hold on to the memory of the woman he loved. “The Specialist’s Hat” involves twin girls living in a historic home and telling creepy stories and playing games about death. And “Louise’s Ghost” has a woman trying to use music to get a ghost out of her house only to wish to be haunted after the fact.

Fairy tales and myth feature heavily in the stories. Some stories feel like fairy tales, as was the case with “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back,” in which a man falls in love with a woman whose father has no nose and whose mother is missing a leg — and both seem to have an odd connection with the family dogs. And “Flying to Hell” is the story of a woman who seems to have become embroiled with a family from Greek myth, living in the contemporary world. “Travels with the Snow Queen” is about exactly that, a journey on torn-up feet involving not just the Snow Queen but also Briar Rose, all to find a man who may not be worth the trip. And “Shoe and Marriage” offers and different, and darker ending to the Cinderella story.

I don’t necessarily know what these stories mean, but I liked immersing myself in the images and general mood of them. In some of them, I didn’t know what was real in the story world and what wasn’t, and I liked being kept just a little off-kilter. It’s a feeling that can sometimes wear thin for me in a novel, but it’s great in a story.

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Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

In the early 17th century, Katharina Kepler, mother of astronomer Johannes Kepler, was accused of witchcraft. Rivka Galchen draws on that incident for a novel about how one little rumor in the wrong hands can spread and cause tragedy.

Galchen’s version of the story comes largely from Katharina herself, who tells her story with the help of Simon, a neighbor who interjects occasionally with his own reflections on the situation. The novel also includes testimony from witnesses of Katharina’s supposed crime and a handful of letters and other documents. But most of the narrative comes from Katharina herself.

Katharina is just the sort of woman you’d expect to get accused of witchcraft. She’s an herbalist who makes medicinal concoctions. She’s a widow who prefers the company of her cow to any of her neighbors. And she’s a woman who lives her own life in her own way. When Ursula Reinhold gets sick after drinking something from Katharina, she decides that witchcraft must be the cause. This starts a whole chain of events, with dueling charges and additional accusations. Any ailment or accident or bad feeling anyone has had for decades comes to be attributed to Katharina, and any unconventional behavior on her part comes to be understood as a sign that she’s in league with the devil. This progression is most evident in the testimonies, where one witness after another reaches to connect themselves and their suffering to Katharina. Some don’t even seem that bothered by what happened to them, and never previously attributed it to witchcraft, but they decided they want to testify in order to do the “right” thing.

These documents, showing the community’s reaction to Katharina and the accusations against her were the most interesting part of the book. I think I would have liked the book better if there’d been more voices incorporated. I’m all for feisty old women in fiction, and  Katharina was, for me, likable enough, but her voice felt kind of one-note after a while. Her narrative wanders a bit, too, and I sometimes wanted a clearer connection between her storytelling and the incidents recounted in the documents. Simon’s voice brings some variety, but he’s also sort of bland. It’s not a bad book, but I think it could have been so much more engaging.

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Still Waters

I’ve been trying to read books from my shelves, both physical and digital. I was sort of craving a mystery this weekend, so I decided to try this Swedish crime novel by Viveca Sten, and translated by Marlaine Delargy. I got it as part of an Amazon giveaway a few years ago to promote their Amazon Crossing translation publishing program. I knew absolutely nothing about it, other than that it was the first in a series called the Sandhamm murders and that it has been adapted for TV.

The book begins with the discovery of a dead body off the shores of Sandhamm island. It all appears to be an accident until the dead man’s cousin is found dead. The detective on the case, Thomas Andreasson, comes in from the mainland, but he has some local knowledge and connections to help him interpret some of the clues he finds and uncover more details about the people involved. In particular, his longtime friend Nora is able to offer some insight, but she’s worried about her own future as she considers an important career move and what it might mean for her marriage.

I found this to be a reasonably good mystery/thriller. The solution to the mystery was satisfyingly unexpected, and on looking back, I could see there was at some information that pointed to the solution sprinkled throughout. And there’s a really gripping race against the clock toward the end that I enjoyed. However, I found most of the characters pretty bland. Nora was the only one who really stood out and that’s mostly because of her personal dilemma outside the crime. Thomas had some personal history that was supposed to give him layers, I think, but it mostly stays in the background. I’m guessing it’ll be developed later on. There’s also a lot of talk about who is going on vacation when that seemed like a lot of distraction in a first book but might be meaningful once you get to know the characters more. But none of it was quite enough to make me want to seek out more books in the series.

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The Chosen and the Beautiful

The day when Daisy met Jay Gatsby again should have been beautiful, the same kind of day on which she had been married, or at least a crisp and dying summer day like the one where she had met the handsome young soldier. Instead silvery clouds hung overhead like wet rags out to dry, and when we stepped out of the car in front of Nick’s humble little place, we could both smell the rain, paused for the moment, but by no means gone. Back in Louisville, that high wet smell coupled with the uncomfortable prickling heat meant that a twister was on the way, crossing the flat cropland with a destructive fury that was out to ruin lives. We were in the East, however, and we had other ways to ruin our lives.

The prose Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful is wonderfully languid and evocative, which is a good thing, since she draws her story from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Poor prose would sink her whole project, but as it is, this novel feels like a worthy tribute.

Vo tells her story through the eyes of Jordan Baker, who, in this version, was “rescued” from Vietnam by a white missionary woman who couldn’t bear to leave behind her favorite baby when she left. In general, Jordan seems confident and self-assured, despite being left on her own for much of her childhood. She goes to clubs, has affairs with men and women, and doesn’t seem to fret much about the ways she is different. But being reunited with her childhood friend Daisy and getting drawn into Jay Gatsby’s orbit shakes something loose in her, and she starts to uncover things about herself that she never knew before.

The supernatural elements of this story sneak up. In fact, at first, I thought Jordan was speaking in metaphors when she described magical happenings. But the book is suffused with magic. Jordan has special magical abilities, and Jay’s wealth is of demonic origin somehow, which makes perfect sense, really. I don’t recall the details of Gatsby well — I had to review a plot summary to refresh my memory before I got very far in this — but I was impressed with how well the magic was incorporated into the story without changing its essential elements. And this addition to the story helped me recognize just how much World War I must have haunted Nick and Jay. They brought those ghosts back with them.

As much as I admired the construction of the book and the creativity with which Vo adapts Gatsby to her own purposes, I wasn’t fully absorbed in the book. At times, despite how emotionally amped up it seemed like it should be, it felt a little cold and detached. But, in fairness, I think that’s a reflection of her drawing inspiration from Fitzgerald’s, whose prose style I enjoy but find similarly detached. So it’s not a flaw exactly, but something that keeps me from giving my heart to the book, despite finding what Vo is doing extremely interesting.

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Maggie and her eight younger brothers and sisters have lived in near isolation for as long as they can remember — just them and their parents and occasional trips to the library in town. But then Maggie decides that it’s time for her to strike out on her own. At age 19, her primary skill is child care, and with her younger siblings growing up, it makes sense for her to leave. So her father arranges for her to take a child care job that will require her to live in town, away from her family. And then, in the time between the decision and the leaving, the world seems to open up to the family, with mysteries unearthed and secrets revealed.

This book by Elizabeth Gentry has sort of the dark fairy tale quality of a Shirley Jackson novel. A lot of things in this world don’t make literal sense. The neighborhood around the house seems like a maze that shifts around as Maggie takes her first steps outside on her own, in preparation for finally leaving. And memories also seem to shift, with Maggie starting to recognize and remember neighbors she must have known at some point. These include her own grandparents, who make dark references to the severing of their relationship.

I enjoyed the book’s aura of mystery and general weirdness. It was often unclear what was truly off-kilter and what aspects of the weirdness was due to Maggie’s own perception of reality, a perception that it seems had been altered by her parents’ choices. I was, at times, frustrated by the large number of characters — too many siblings to tell apart, especially since they were sometimes referred to by name and sometimes by their area of interest or role in the family. I sometimes wondered how much of the story was deliberately ambiguous and strange and how much was just confusing, but that’s not unusual in this kind of book.

At the end, some of the secrets about Maggie’s family are revealed. But other elements remain mysterious. How, precisely, did Maggie’s parents make her and her siblings forget? Why are the paths so hard to navigate? I’m not actually sure those answers are important, though. The book is, at heart, about how parental influence dictates reality and how becoming an adult involves stepping out into one’s own reality. That’s what Maggie is in the process of doing, and by doing so, she brings some of her altered perspective back to her family. By the end, the world is different for everyone.

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